Dearest cycling community of Wellington,
Back in January Critical Mass (CM) Wellington’s (re)founding father Tom Elliot personally charged me with the mission of keeping CM going in Wellington, after he left town on an exciting round-the-world cycling and sailing adventure.
Thus far I have failed miserably in my task.
If you are not familiar with Critical Mass, it is an international event in which cyclists gather to ride collectively with the aim of creating the required “critical mass” of bicycles necessary to assert our rights to the use of roads on equal measure with motorised vehicles. This mass ride phenomenon began in 1992 in San Francisco and now occurs in more than 300 cities worldwide, generally on the last Friday of the month.
The Wikipedia article provides more information regarding the background and history of critical mass.
I moved to Wellington in 2010 and was unaware of any local critical mass events, until I saw a flyer for the October 2011 Wellington ride. I participated in the ride, enjoyed it thoroughly and continued to do so regularly until November 2012, missing only 1 ride during that time! Sadly, since December 2012, CM has ceased happening in reliable numbers.
My understanding is that previous to the re-founding of CM in Wellington by Tom Elliot in 2011, there had been a CM tradition in Wellington that received the expected negative criticism from the motorist community, however surprisingly it also received some negative criticism from the cycling community. Apparently (again this is just my understanding from what I have been told) the methods used by some more radical cyclists during the rides was viewed as reflecting poorly on the Wellington cycling community. For this reason, and perhaps others of which I have not been made aware, CM in Wellington was halted for some time (a few years?), until it was rejuvenated mid-2011.
Of course, as cyclists, we all know how important it is to be responsible advocates for cycling, and how the individual cyclist’s behaviour reflects upon the cycling community as a whole. We also know how important the wider perception of cycling and cyclists is when it comes to advocating for and implementing improvements cycling infrastructure, as this requires support from the public and the city council.
To oversimplify the scenario, if one person rides their bike around like an asshole, the motorists think we’re all assholes, and the city council will never give us bike lanes, because we all look like irresponsible menaces to safety and good conduct.
However, there is a distinction between riding safely and comfortably, and what motorists expect the “rules” for cycling to be.
Irrespective of this tangent (which I hope may provoke an interesting discussion) CM does have a reputation for using some aggressive, anti-motorist tactics to promote cycling. However, in my experiences participating in CM rides in 3 different countries, I can say that by far, the Wellington CM rides were the most polite, and least aggressive or intrusive to motorists or pedestrians. This is perhaps because of that keen awareness of our sensitive situation as cyclists in Wellington. I have also had discussions and experiences with cycling New Zealanders that made me aware of how my perceptions, as an American, differ to those of the locals. But anyway, I digress, this was not meant to be a diatribe on the cultural factors affecting cyclists’ behaviours, but on the merits of advocating for the cycling community in a responsible and enjoyable manner.
I have conducted some informal surveys of my acquaintances regarding resuming monthly critical mass rides in Wellington. The responses have varied. Most of those who have previously participated are interested in participating again, however some had complaints about the format and function of CM.
In the past Civic Square has been our meeting point, and we have more or less stuck to one route through the CDB, along Victoria street, down Vivian, along Cambridge Tce, up Courtney Place, and ending with the traditional CM “bike lift” near the bucket fountain on Cuba Street. We have not aggressively employed traditional CM techniques such as “corking“, but rather tried to remain as a group and be aware of lights and pedestrian crossings. However, phrases such as “Ride your bike!” or “Burn fat not oil!” were shouted alongside choruses of bike bells to bring awareness to the activist nature of the ride.
(Better picture coming soon…)
While personally I found this a good balance, others did not. For me personally, I enjoy the social and activist aspects of CM. I don’t normally participate in group rides unless they have a specific goal or objective other than “just to ride” or for fitness; I ride my bike to get where I need to go. CM isn’t about riding for fitness or endurance, we ride very slowly for about 45 minutes and only go about 3 kms, though of course you do get out and moving on a bicycle. CM began as a way for commuters who gathered in the city centre to begin their rides home together. I believe it’s about making people aware of cyclists and an opportunity for cyclists to socialise. After our rides we would often go to the nearby Leftbank for some noodles or a beer. Some of the participants in my informal survey found the rides to be too tame – they wanted CM to be a vehicle (excuse the pun) for aggressive cycling activism.
I always enjoyed participating in CM and I am overcome with guilt for not having actively tried to keep it going over the last 6 months. However, with this aim, I would like to solicit the feedback and opinions of the wider cycling community with regards to the future of critical mass in Wellington.
Some questions to consider:
- Is it worthwhile to try to keep the last Friday of the month (5:30 pm meet, 6 pm ride) CM ride going?
- What is the message Wellington CM should be trying to communicate to the public?
- How do we best communicate this message?
- What is your motivation to participate (or not participate) in CM? Is it for the social/community aspect? Activism? Exercise? Some other reason?
- How should CM riders behave with regards to traffic lights, pedestrian crossings, etc.?
- What kind of routes should be taken?
- Any other feedback/comments…
Please post your comments below.
Another barrier to me taking a more active role in the organisation of CM (albeit self-imposed) is that fact that I am not a Facebook user and do not have access to the Wellington CM group or event pages. In addition, I am trying to finish my PhD thesis within the next 6 weeks. Is anybody keen to help out with organisational responsibilities and Facebook skillz?
Nicole M. Gaston